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Finding great wines at a good price

Building a winning wine list may be the beverage director’s hardest job. It’s not easy finding great wines at a good price. And the patchwork of the various states’ alcohol regulations doesn’t make the job any easier. For some truly novel additions to your wine list, and bargains to boot, look to emerging wine regions such as Eastern Europe, Greece, Uruguay and Mexico. Eastern Europe: Changing political conditions and greater stability in Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania and Slovenia have induced some producers to focus on quality rather than quantity...

Building a winning wine list may be the beverage director’s hardest job. It’s not easy finding great wines at a good price. And the patchwork of the various states’ alcohol regulations doesn’t make the job any easier. For some truly novel additions to your wine list, and bargains to boot, look to emerging wine regions such as Eastern Europe, Greece, Uruguay and Mexico.

Eastern Europe: Changing political conditions and greater stability in Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania and Slovenia have induced some producers to focus on quality rather than quantity; these wines are priced aggressively and labels usually feature international varietals.

Greece: Winemaking has seen major improvements by big producers; still, white wines are more successful than reds, say experts.

Uruguay: Taking its cue from Chile’s phenomenal success, and following in Argentina’s footsteps, Uruguay is also improving its vineyards and vinification techniques; the unusual red tannat grape is its rising star.

Mexico: Mexico has a long history of winemaking on the Baja Peninsula, where its close proximity and similar growing conditions to California have attracted interest and investment from the United States.

Of course, all these wines are out of the mainstream distribution channels and demand some digging to procure—and rigorous tasting to ferret out good labels. The best strategy might be to consult an importer whose taste you trust.


Bottle Matters

While the 750 ml bottle is  standard, consider buying larger or smaller sizes for better value. Larger bottles mean more wine with less glass to recycle and fewer corks to pull. Many producers also offer wine in liter and 1.5 liter sizes; the latter is more familiarly called a magnum. Some prestige cuvees are put into even bigger bottles
to enhance longevity. The Jeroboam (equal to about four standard bottles), Rehoboam (six), Methusalem (eight), Salmanazer (12), Balthazar (16) and Nebuchadnezzar (a whopping 20 bottles) are special-purchase wines that make a splash.

At the other end of the scale are half bottles, containing 375 ml of vino. They’re well suited for restaurant use. Half bottles hold a bit more than two glasses, perfect for a deuce.

Even smaller are 187 ml bottles, equivalent to a quarter bottle of wine. Sometimes called an “airline bottle,” this size has seen a recent boost in popularity, thanks largely to its single-serve capacity. Many operators stock sparklers in 187ml bottles because there’s no wasted leftover wine.

Then there are bag-in-box wines. Boxes are easy to stack in the storeroom, are a snap to open and contents stay fresh longer than an open bottle. Box wine quality has improved in the last few years as well.   

Far-out packaging can make a sale on novelty. Sofia blanc de blanc sparkler comes in single-serve cans with straws. Australia’s Hardy’s offers the “shuttle,” a 187 ml plastic bottle topped with its own built-in glass.


Sourcing strategies: Look for the overlooked

Every famous wine region has neighbors that share similar terrain, climate,  grapes and quality—but at much lower price points. Be on the lookout for bottles by top producers, who often make wines in these overlooked regions as well.

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